Napa Valley’s much-celebrated annual wine action has raised some $98 million for more than 50 local health care, youth services and farm worker housing programs, including $8.4 million from the June 2010 event, the Valley’s 30th wine auction.
On Sept. 11, Garen and Shari Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyard, also in Napa Valley, will host their 16th annual Music Festival for Mental Health, which has helped the family raise $94 million to support cutting-edge mental health research programs.
Various other wine-based Napa Valley auctions and events raise funds for schools, libraries, animal shelters, athletic programs and the like, with vintners donating spectacular wine lots, trips to Bordeaux, luxury sports cars, walk-on roles on popular TV shows, sometimes even the shirts off their backs, as Robert Mondavi did in putting his shirt up for auction several years before his death.
That entertainment and sports celebrities, star chefs, famous sommeliers and big-name acts (the Bangles played at Auction Napa Valley this year; Staglin event-goers will boot-scoot to the music of country star Dwight Yoakam) draw the wealthy and glamorous to wine auctions, the proceeds go to worthy charitable causes, and entire communities benefit from the largess of others. Some consumers complain about the excesses of such fundraisers, yet who can complain when the prosperity of some help so many in need?
Yet Ehlers Estate in St. Helena has gone about its charity business rather quietly, without much fanfare, donating every penny of its profits to cardiovascular research conducted throughout the world. This philanthropy, along with the opportunity to produce Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon from organically grown grapes from a single estate, lured Kevin Morrisey away from Stag’s Leap Winery in 2009 to become Ehlers’ general manager and winemaker.
In 1985, Frenchman Jean Leducq, who had built a successful business supplying linens and uniforms in Europe and North America, began buying vineyard land north of St. Helena, in an area where winegrowing had prospered in the mid- to late-1800s. Working with French enologist Jacques Boissenot, he planted classic Bordeaux grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot on land that had once been home to the vineyard of Bernard Ehlers.
In 1996, Leducq sold his linen/uniforms business and created, with his wife, Sylviane, the Leducq Foundation, devoted to raising funds to combat cardiovascular disease. Their emphasis was on bringing scientific minds from all continents together to share knowledge and take on projects as international teams. The winery’s logo cleverly incorporates the shape of a heart into the “E” for Ehlers.
By 2001, Leducq had put together a contiguous 42-acre wine estate, planted around the stone winery built by Ehlers in 1886. The first vintage of Ehlers Estate wine was 2000, yet Jean Leducq lived just two more years, leaving the estate in trust to the non-profit Leducq Foundation. Sylviane continues his work and maintains a house on the St. Helena property. While the foundation will not disclose how much money the sales of Ehlers wines has contributed to the foundation, it had awarded 27 grants totaling more than $160 million through 2009, to 314 researchers in 16 countries.
The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Cabernet Francs and, recently, Sauvignon Blancs, have been impressive, even though they haven’t had the cachet of some of its Napa neighbors. Morrisey is proud of the fact that the vineyard is certified organic, and that biodynamic methods are also used. Just as the Leducq Foundation aims to improve the heart health of people of the world, Morrisey said that everything Ehlers does in the vineyard is “consistent with healthy practices and promoting well-being.”
“I had a great job at Stag’s Leap Winery and had no thoughts of leaving when I was recruited by Ehlers,” said Morrisey, who once interned at Bordeaux’s famous Chateau Petrus. “But it was like somebody gave me a First Growth property, and I couldn’t say no. There is no pressure to make more money, just to make great wines. The estate approach is a dying model, so I find making wine at Ehlers Estate inspiring.”
The vineyard is divided into five main blocks, based on four different soil types, and within those blocks are 25 sub-blocks that are defined largely by the clones and rootstocks planted in them. Twenty-five acres are devoted to Napa Valley star grape Cabernet Sauvignon, and the winery’s flagship “1886” Cabernet gets its complexity from grapes grown using six clones and multiple rootstocks and planted through the four-soil mosaic (and its name from the year Bernard Ehlers built his winery, which today serves as the tasting room.
I found the recent releases -- 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, 2007 Merlot and 2007 Cabernet Franc -- and the 2007 “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon, which will be released later this summer, to be exceptional, and Morrisey is already excited by the 2008 and 2009 wines in barrel, calling them “awesome.”
If drinking wine is good for the heart, then drinking Ehlers Estate wine can just as good for the soul. Purchasing a $45 bottle of Ehlers Merlot or a $95 “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon may not ignite the jubilant celebration that comes when an auction bidder score a trip to Tuscany and or a Lexus hybrid; however, it’s a small yet significant way that the rest of us can contribute to wine-based charity.